The Secret of Kells provides vivid pigmentation to its insubstantial Irish scriptorium. Rural Ireland, 9th Century. An age where brutish Vikings expand their forces, ravaging the various settlements scattered across the picturesque country. Walls crumbled. Towns destroyed. Darkness filled the lands with desolation. Kells, harbouring a towering monastery, provided illumination. Its faithful core acting as a pillar of virtuosity in a time where shadows engulfed the light. Preventing the Vikings from savaging their settlement, Abbot Cellach with his stern stubborn nature employed stonemasons to construct a colossal wall surrounding the monastery. Protecting the villagers from invading savagery. A curiously brave boy, hiding within the Abbey of Kells, practices his apprenticeship in scripture where he eavesdrop on a secretive discussion involving a book that can vanquish the darkness. The Book of Kells. Brendan, sparked by imagination deep within his sheltered mind, seeks to aid the completion of this manuscript to prevent corruption from consuming Ireland.
Moore’s directorial debut is undoubtedly a stunning work of art. An idyllic amalgamation of fictitious world-building and Irish folklore, blended together to conceive an accessible animation detailing early Christian history. Religious heritage is embedded throughout the kaleidoscopic visuals, from luminary iron gall ink to a symbolistic ouroboros, honing in on the proclamations of Paganism and its provincial evolution into Christianity. Whilst younger audiences would subconsciously ignore the deeper historic endeavours of Moore’s screenplay, mature viewers could respect this articulate perspective.
Fortunately the animation style of Cartoon Saloon’s hand-drawn techniques will entice those with susceptible imaginations. The environmental design, nestling circular vertices and Celtic spirals within the leaves of trees and flowing waters of rivers, evoke a unique yet palatable portrait of colourful world-building foundations. From the angular encounter with the sinister Crom Cruach to the animated renditions of the Book of Kells. Each animation style, whilst cyclically linked through vigorous environmental detailing, harnessed substantial characterisation of their own. It’s impeccably orchestrated between the production countries of France, Belgium and Ireland, even if the occasional opaque three dimensional visuals failed to compliment the hand-drawn style.
The central voice acting of McGuire, Mooney and Lally were well-suited to their tenacious characters. Gleeson on the other hand, whilst forbidding in tone, lacked the clarity and power behind his voice. Almost too nonchalant for the almighty vigour of Abbot Cellach. The score suitably haunting with its evocative melodies and atmospheric lyrics, particularly from forest fairy Aisling whom Brendan eventually befriends.
Regrettably, much like with Moore’s second directorial efforts in ‘Song of the Sea’, the story itself was surplus to the sublime animation. So expansive in time and nature, that it was almost impossible to condense into a mere seventy-five minute runtime. The heavy influence of Celtic mythology and pre-Christian Irish folklore unfortunately, due to its prior unacknowledged existence to most audiences, required mass explanations throughout the feature. The concept behind the Book of Kells, for example, consumed a vast amount of time before the characterisation of Brendan and his curious personality was established. Crom Cruach, Iona and the Tuatha De Danann needed just as much exposition yet still felt unaddressed. This consequently diminishes the primary friendship between Aisling and Brendan, his serrated relationship with his uncle Abbot Cellach, and the conflict between completing the manuscript or saving the village from an impending Viking raid. Whilst these narrative seeds are planted, they never grow into beguiling trees. Instead acting as mere stepping stones for Moore to depict the legacy of the Book of Kells in its entirety.
As a technical piece of animated art, The Secret of Kells is an enchanting tale that will entrance many with its prismatic colours and embellished style. Ambitiously influenced by mythology unbeknown to the average viewer. Unfortunately, that very depiction of said folklore resigns its narrative to a paint-by-numbers story, offering very limited characterisation in the process. Beautiful, but superfluous.